By Sarah Soliz, SAR Press Director
Kent Blansett is an associate professor at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. He descends from five tribes—Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Shawnee, and Potawatomi—and grew up in what he calls the “other four corners” area of Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Kansas. Professor Blansett published his first book, A Journey to Freedom: Richard Oakes, Alcatraz, and the Red Power Movement, in 2018 with Yale University Press. I recently spoke with him about his work, his book, and his time at SAR as the 2013–14 Katrin H. Lamon resident scholar.
As a young Native scholar I’d studied Native activism and Red Power and got involved in activism; one of the names that stood out in the back of my mind, the person I’d always wanted to know more about, was Richard Oakes. One of the biggest occupations and/or historical events in Indian Country of the latter half of the twentieth century occurred when a group of Native students took over Alcatraz Island and ushered in an era not only of Red Power, but also one of self-determination. Only a couple of books have been written about Alcatraz, and Richard Oakes, one of the key figures of that movement, seemed to fade from time. So it was a big part of me to write the first biography of Richard Oakes that could fill this historical gap and speak to the roots of Native activism in America and how Red Power was a peaceful, nonviolent movement that was started by Native students. A movement that ushered in our modern era, the self-determination period, and overturned destructive federal policies like termination and relocation that were extensions of acculturation and assimilation policies of the past.
Richard Oakes was a key leader in the occupation of Alcatraz in November of 1969. The occupation itself lasted another nineteen months, and it became one of the longest occupations in American history. Previous scholarship just focused exclusively on Alcatraz, or at least the activism of that period seemed to be sealed off in a vacuum. But in fact Alcatraz triggered hundreds of other takeovers and protests throughout the country in which Indian Country took direct action to challenge these destructive policies. Alcatraz emerged as this beaconing call for Indigenous rights as a global movement, and it sent a rippling effect throughout all of Indian Country—everyone’s lives changed with this occupation. Richard Oakes was instrumental in articulating a new vision for Native liberation, and he moved it off the island to Fort Lawton, Pit River, and countless other occupations along the West Coast.
In 1972 he was assassinated, an important point that is missing from most historical accounts of the occupation. It was, of course, a very dark and turbulent period in American history. Americans had witnessed multiple assassinations going from John F. Kennedy to Robert F. Kennedy to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and others, and Richard Oakes became another fallen hero. As the first historian to write Oakes’s biography, it took me a long time, mainly because Richard’s life was lived between two different coasts. He was brought up at Akwesasne, but he also lived in Brooklyn, New York, and was a part of a Mohawk ironworker community. About 15 percent of the iron-working labor force in New York happened to be Haudenosaunee, largely comprised of Mohawk ironworkers. Richard Oakes happened to be a part of that long-standing tradition that stretched back to the 1920s. How did ironwork and Akwesasne influence this young Native leader, and what inspired him in the late 1960s to move from New York to San Francisco?
In the midst of this period there were massive relocations of Native peoples sponsored by the BIA’s relocation program, a federal program to relocate one out of seven Native peoples to specific cities in the hope that urban life might prompt the full assimilation and/or acculturation of Native peoples. The intent of the relocation program was to destroy Tribal identity and cultivate in its place a quasi–Indian American identity, the melting pot kind of dogma that had been sold to centuries of immigrants. Due to a lack of federal support and broken promises Native peoples were forced to seek each other out in cities, and they began organizing and building institutions and became politicized as urban Indians. Alcatraz wasn’t just spontaneous, it came out of a Bay Area community that had been organizing for several years prior to the occupation. My research ultimately led me between two different countries, two different coasts, and dozens of archives and libraries. In twentieth-century history the sheer amount of documents that one has to process can overwhelm any historian. Beyond the archives, I conducted many interviews with Oakes family members and Alcatraz veterans in order to fill in the historical gaps between documents and thread the story together from a Native perspective and to highlight our voice throughout the book.
I recently did a short interview with the artist Mateo Romero, and he was talking about the influence of images from Wounded Knee. At one point he used the words “timeless confrontation” to describe what they represented for him. Does that mean anything to you?
Yeah, that has great meaning. The first time I went out to Alcatraz Island was between 1999 and 2000, so almost twenty years ago. I had seen a lot of photographs of what we typically label graffiti, but they were political statements that had been painted all throughout the island. These were slogans like “you are on Indian land” or “free or freedom” or different slogans of Red Power—“Custer had it coming”—that were scattered throughout the island and are still visible to this day. I remember seeing all of these photos, but it really didn’t hit me until I actually visited the island, and there was one statement in particular that hit me. Visitors typically pull out from Ghirardelli Square on the ferry boat, and you kind of go around the island, and you come to the back end of it. There’s a dock there, and before the boat docks you see a sign in large letters that essentially says, “Indians of All Tribes, welcome” or “Welcome, Indians.” That sign literally sent chills down my spine when I saw it. As a Native person I’d never seen a welcome sign in my own home country, and finally, I got it. The messages that they had created with Alcatraz are still speaking to people fifty years later, and they are still decolonizing people’s minds and hearts.
The first thing the National Park Service has you do when you exit the ferryboat for the island is to gather under that “Indians of All Tribes, welcome” sign, and the park ranger explains the importance of these political statements and what happened in November of 1969: Native peoples came to Alcatraz with a vision to liberate this failed federal prison or failed justice system into an Indigenous space free of federal control. Alcatraz served as a great metaphor for what had happened historically throughout Indian Country—the island lacked running water, electricity, mineral resources, employment, adequate housing, education, health care, and was impossible to escape—because it symbolized most reservations or Red ghettos. Indians of All Tribes, who took control over the island, transformed this former prison into a vibrant Indian city and ignited a global Indigenous rights movement. These students impacted millions of people from around the world who come to that island every single year. Today, Alcatraz represents a profound and sacred space that was made by a generation who fought for Indigenous rights. I didn’t get it until I was there: the timelessness of the art itself is something that I think historians should recognize. My hope was to reposition how we interpret the importance of the Alcatraz takeover and to share a new definition of Red Power and Indian cities, utilizing Richard Oakes as a kind of biographical lens to expose greater meanings within Red Power, Native nationalism, Indian cities, and intertribalism as the four main components that frame modern Indigenous politics.
Why would you say this book is important for the contemporary reader, whether a Native person or a non-Native person, and what do you hope its influence would be?
I want readers to also understand that this was a human rights movement. We can see a direct tie to Alcatraz contemporarily during the 2016 Standing Rock water protectors’ movement to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline from being built across the sacred Missouri River. Many of the organizational strategies and tactics for this movement are linked directly to the Alcatraz takeover. Indigenous peoples have been putting their lives on the front lines, much as we did at Alcatraz, to protect Indigenous rights, which are human rights. The idea behind my title for the book, A Journey to Freedom, is to get all people to really question the greater political, cultural, legal, and historical meanings of the term freedom. If the first peoples of this country are not free, how can they themselves ever be free. This movement isn’t just for Native peoples, this is for all peoples. What does it mean to truly be free and how do we decolonize our minds? If we value equality and liberty then we should act as a nation bound in liberty and equality for all. I’m going to say something provocative: Indigenous peoples have value, and those values can lead to greater freedoms. These were the ideals and philosophies that Richard Oakes put his life on the line to protect. His most famous quote was, “Alcatraz is not an island, it’s an idea.” It’s about time that we get back to those ideas and that we get off the island within our own minds and within our own hearts to openly discuss these ideas with good minds and hearts—it is the only way to have true freedom in our lifetime.
Typically, 1960s history is written in a racialized manner—you pick up a book on the Black Panther Party and thumb through the index to find something on Alcatraz or the Indians of All Tribes or the American Indian Movement, and oftentimes these terms are missing—why? Such histories are missing a critical element of what was happening in the 1960s, coalition politics. These organizations were not operating in a vacuum, but rather they depended upon one another. One of the many instances in which I found evidence of this coalition politics was that members of Indians of All Tribes also marched in East LA alongside the Brown Berets in the anti-Vietnam Moratorium March. For the Black Panther Party it was much the same. The Black Panther Party volunteered to work security for Alcatraz Island. Later the Brown Berets attempted to take over Catalina Island in Los Angeles. So these became really interesting crossover or interethnic movements with shared dialogue and ideology, and I think that coalition politics is something unique in American political organizing; it is the heart of 1960s history. Finally, I wanted to offer a new challenge, the writing of interethnic histories, and ask how this changes our traditional narrative of 1960s history.
Finally, could you say a little bit more about how your time at SAR influenced your work and your book?
I applied for the SAR fellowship and was ecstatic when I was given the opportunity to study for a full year and the chance to process my research. I began taking everything that I had collected and went back through all my interviews to rewrite dissertation chapters and of course integrate new materials into my final book manuscript. Writing time at SAR afforded me invaluable time to polish the manuscript and submit the book in 2015, the year after my fellowship. While at SAR, I also landed my current job at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
It was a transitionary year at SAR when I was there, and we were kind of left to our own, which was not a bad thing. All the SAR fellows and interns ended up really coming together as a group of scholars, and we met every Friday at the Billiard House. That was our potluck—we shared resources, we talked about ideas, and we created a really good sense of togetherness and community while I was there. We also had the opportunity to present our work before not only SAR, but other scholars who had come in from across Santa Fe; we each received invaluable feedback. This fellowship was crucial in that it helped me work out some of the key ideas and problem areas within the book. So I’ve been incredibly blessed as a former Katrin H. Lamon fellow. It was a tremendous honor, too—especially when you enter that Billiard House and you see the long legacy of photographs, of all those who have had the Lamon prior, you feel like you’re a part of something bigger, and it really ups the scale of what you want to produce. There’s a sense of pride that I still carry in having been a former Lamon fellow, and I think other Lamon and SAR fellows recognize that as well, and it’s been really nice to see that extra community flourish well beyond the fellowship. It has been incredible to be a part of the SAR network and community of scholars.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.